Sunday, October 09, 2011

We Are All Big Brother

As my existence in meatspace has elaborated & unfolded into an every-wider array of activities & obligations, I've felt less guilty for letting this space lapse into occasional torpor. There's always some guilt, given that I know there are a few kind individuals on the other side of the internet who actually pay attention to, think about, and even respond to my self-indulgent wortschwall. I honestly enjoy their participation and so feel neglectful, even ungrateful, whenever my side of the conversation slips into silence.

Some of my friends - real friends, not "friends" or Friends™ - ask why it's been so long since I last posted regularly on this blog, to which I can only reply, "Because I'm talking to you right fucking now!" Point taken, they suggest that perhaps I sign up for Twitter or Tumblr and start "microblogging" if full essays are too burdensome. But I find that thinking & conversing in bite-sized nuggets leads to a kind of mental constipation. Besides, I don't have a cellphone (the ultimate act of roguish delinquency here in Japan) to enable such incessant content-regurgitation.

So reality took precedence over my online presence for the past couple of months. A significant factor was that my band's current effort to release a record had turned into a blunder-plagued clusterfuck. (You know you're in trouble when your contact at the record-pressing plant is an accountant, not a technician.) But the bulk of my time offline has been on the road: my band has played more shows over the preceding month than we did all of last year. However, it wasn't simply that incessant touring kept me away from the computer and that explains my absence; there was a particular phenomenon recurrent on the road that made me want as much distance from cyberspace as I could get.

Over the past two years in Japan, Twitter has gone from marginal novelty to ubiquitous modus vivendi: the estimated number of Japanese "tweeters" exploded from a mere 200,000 in January '09 to over 16 million by August '10. Japan holds the current record of 6,939 "tweets-per-second" and sends around 14% of all "tweets" despite comprising only 8% of Twitter's user base.

This can produce some peculiar social dynamics in the "real" world. I've lost count of how often I find myself sat at a table, surrounded by friends, utterly ignored as they, every one of 'em, thumb-tap away on their Twitter accounts to tell thousands of anonymous voyeurs what a kick-ass time we're all having "together."

But that's simply a dull annoyance. What I find disturbing is, thanks to the Japanese fondness for interminate & omnivorous tweeting, I've been assimilated into the Twitterverse without even trying. This past July, I was chatting with some acquaintances after a show in Nagoya. In the midst of the usual catch-up chit-chat, one of them asked me, "So how did you like your lunch? It looked super-American!"

I didn't quite understand. "Super-American?"

"Yeah, you know - your wife prepared you a lunchbox with pizza and a green apple. That's a totally American thing to eat for lunch; Japanese would never eat pizza for lunch!"

My initial offense at being mistaken for an American was very quickly overcome by befuddled panic: how did they, a relative stranger, know what I'd eaten for lunch in such detail? Yes, I had eaten pizza & a green apple that my wife had stuffed into tupperware for me, but I'd done so sat under a tree in a rest area 120 miles away from Nagoya in the company of only my band's bassist...

Then it hit me. "Ken put a picture of my lunch on Twitter, didn't he?"

This was only first of what have become regular intrusions on my quotidian activities that I'd like to think were autonomous & anonymous. Last week, I arrive in Nara after an overnight drive to discover that a fellow traveler had shared a snapshot of my slumbering form with his 1,500 Twitter followers. This isn't to say that on-the-road naps & snacks are embarrassing in & of themselves, but it's upsetting that even such boring & inconsequential activities cannot escape the all-seeing eye of the electronic multitude.

The obsequious cliché is that if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear, but the nefarious implication therein is that if you did have something to hide, you wouldn't be able to. The flipside of the superficial "empowerment" of social media's self-expressive potential is that it creates a volunteer surveillance state. There is no need for informants, spies, or state-sponsored treachery when citizens opt-in to the Panopticon - a truth sadly demonstrated by how the Iranian government turned the 2009 "Twitter Revolution" against itself in its crackdown upon self-documenting dissidents.

Insofar as "rights" are merely privileges bestowed by the state upon its subjects, privilege cannot exist except in contrast with its opposite, penury. As Jean Baudrillard argued in The Consumer Society, "rights" become legally sanctified only at the point that they become recognizable by their punctuated & selective absence:
This whole phenomenon, which seems to express a general individual and collective advance, rewarded in the end with embodiment in institutions, is ambiguous in its meaning and one might, as it were, see it as representing quite the opposite: there is no right to space until there no longer is space for everyone, and until space and silence are the privilege of some at the expense of others. Just as there was no `right to property' until there was no longer land for everyone and there was no right to work until work became, within the framework of the division of labour, an exchangeable commodity, i.e. one which no longer belonged specifically to individuals.
This is certainly why arguments about the "right to privacy" have become more commonplace & heated concomitant with the rise of the internet & global telecommunications. As opposed to privacy of physical property (the long-enshrined fundament of liberal democracy), privacy of deed & thought are of greater value & concern the more impossible they become under the ever-widening purview of the self-imposed surveillance state.

To the extent that I expose myself online, I may be justifiably subject to ridicule, argument, censure, or acclaim much the same as I may be for picking a fight in a convenience store, being a drunken lech at a wedding reception, or helping an old lady cross the street. We're judged by our public performance, online and off. What has changed is that I - we - no longer have control over which aspects of our lives are subject to public scrutiny, because even if I choose not to broadcast a certain deed or thought across the internet, I cannot stop my friends/"friends"/Friends™ from doing just that.

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